The Fall

[This is the third in a series of posts about my first year of teaching. If you would like to read more, please click on “Becoming Ms. Reed” under Categories. Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the people in this story.]

In the mornings, students waited outside for the bell to ring. Feet hanging over a brick wall, loud-talking, and smacking on “breakfast pizza,” yesterday’s left-overs from lunch. It made me nervous to walk through them from the car to the school. So much laughing and fondling. Their breath hung in the air between them, collecting in the chill of morning. Everything about these students–their language, their postures–grated against my raising of restraint, respect, and privilege. The students’ catcalls that followed me into the building left me speechless, any retort or Smart Words that might stop them had been pre-conditioned to stop short in my throat where they stuck like glue dripping down into my gut. Powerless. Defenseless. Victim. These are the words I knew. These are the words I spoke when I came home from work each evening to ears that couldn’t possibly understand.

The days melted together. First block broke my spirit and my teaching and energy waned from that class on, decaying into each day’s end. Favorite excuse for getting out of class? “I need to step out. Gotta break wind. You know.” What was I supposed to say? No? I found myself desperately clinging to lessons about grammar and literature so stale I could hardly suffer them myself. Curriculum. Worksheets. Coverage. Maybe do some art to make the room look pretty. (My colleagues were fond of poking fun at how colorful and bright my room was with all the stuff on the walls. They always walked in with their hands shielding their eyes, feigning blindness.)

I quickly discovered that class was much more bearable if it was held outside. This was true for me and for the students. The fresh air was enough to put off the snickering and gossip of the fight that broke out at the Piggly Wiggly between two of the girls in my fourth block class; enough to make me forget the rumor I had heard that each girl had armed herself with a razor in her mouth; enough to fill my lungs, which were being encroached upon by my breeched baby’s head more and more everyday; enough to remind me that these were people I was teaching. Bringing the class outside felt more humane than anything else I did as a teacher that semester.

Unspoken: Here, see the sun? See the grass? This is what we were made for. This is what the poets are writing about. We can all enjoy this. This is what makes us human. Me. And you. This is what we have in common.

There was a homeless pit bull with ribs sharp and jutting out at weird angles. Hollow. Fur matted. Its face was scary despite its weakness. Slack-jawed, tongue hanging dry, its walk was slow, always careening toward me it seemed. The dog elicited all sorts of jeering and laughing from the kids. My fear of the dog was transparent. Some days the students played to my fear, taunting the dog to come over. Other days, they shooed it away. I never knew the kind of day it would be.

What I knew for sure, everyday, was that the drive would be a kind of relief–a sweet purgatory between two worlds, two institutions, I struggled to fit into: school and marriage. School is the one that remains.

Today, it’s spring outside of my classroom window where I’m writing and the kids are at lunch. When they come back, we’re headed outside to read The Odyssey. I’ve taught this story every year since that first fall. It’s my favorite thing to teach because it’s about being human. Today we’re reading my favorite part: when the Cyclops gets his eye gouged out by Nohbdy. “Now comes the weird upon me,” he roars. I love the Greeks and their deep respect for fate.


Here’s The Thing:

© 2010 David Parker

This isn’t what I was planning to write today. This is something else. This is about The Thing you want to forget. This is about the proverbial pebble in the shoe of every kind of important human relationship. This is about The Thing you fight about when there’s nothing else to fight about. When all of your other issues have been rubbed out, this is The One that remains. Like a cut on the roof of your mouth that you can’t stop tonguing long enough for it to heal.

Maybe it’s because the weather was perfect. Maybe it’s because I was hungry. Or maybe it’s because my jeans had decided to hang on for one more day before their last fatal rip. Whatever the reason or the occasion, I somehow managed to find the invisible, hidden trigger that would shatter my perfect fall morning with a silent BANG! And then there it was, The Thing That I Can’t Seem to Stop Fighting About, right there on the table next to the plate covered in powdered sugar where the beignets had been. And once it’s Out There, it just hangs heavy between you, sucking all the air. You’re both quiet because there’s nothing new to say about it. You both know that you could be kinder, but you’re both kind of pissed that the other hasn’t moved past it yet. Because, let’s be honest, in order for the Thing to exist, both parties have to feel that it is a Thing, because if it were a mere thing, then one of you would be able to dislodge it.

What really sucks is that there is no human relationship that is exempt from The Thing: parents, children, siblings, friends, lovers, colleagues, they’re all marked by a Thing. And even though you (and whoever) have The Thing in common, you wrestle it alone (seemingly forever). Until all you want is to have is a normal conversation, where there’s no trace of The Thing left in either of your voices. Until you’re pretty sure The Thing is more of a thing that you perhaps shouldn’t have given so much voice and energy too. Until you’re pushed to the point of making ridiculous claims like I won’t let it bother me again, when what you should be saying is Next time it bothers me, I won’t blame you, I won’t pick a fight about something else, and I’ll do my best not to pull any triggers. Because here’s the thing: even though you know somewhere in your Thing-laden mind that you’re both probably sort of responsible for The Thing (and the re-hashing thereof), you really just want to be forgiven for pulling the trigger. Again.

Not Me

© 2010 David Parker

I woke up this morning to an orange-pink sky:
Made coffee, made lunch, made the bed.
Skipped breakfast.

I’m too sensitive. I want
to leave the house not for work.
I want to leave
for a place where I am a stranger.

Where people don’t know me so well
that they can call me a bitch
and be sure of it.
Where someone else
makes the coffee, makes lunch, makes the bed.
Where I can get by on
wit and good looks.
A place where there is no history
unraveling itself at my feet.

Instead, I sip back tears
with room-temperature coffee: nothing worse
than a pack of fifteen-year-olds
watching you cry.
I send an honest email and immediately
regret sending it: I care too much.
My raw little soul tapped into
the keyboard, onto the screen.

I see myself too clearly,
know myself too well.

On Being Brave and Wearing Jeans

© 2010 David Parker

I have this pair of jeans. We’ve been through a lot together–nine patches, two fly-zippers, one busted belt-loop, most of my twenties. And they still make my ass look great. Confidence, comfort, and a nice ass all wrapped up in the perfect-shade-of-blue dreamy denim. They don’t cut off the circulation in my thighs and the waist doesn’t make my stomach pooch over when I sit down to a big plate of pasta. They forgive, but they don’t forget, and the not-forgetting is what makes them the best because they love me anyways. I’m my best self in these jeans and the more I wear them, the more myself I feel.

These and a ring I bought myself just after I got divorced. These are my everyday talismans. I wore both when I went on my Very Bravest Adventure to boldly spend 17 hours doing something I’ve never done before with people who initially intimidated the hell out of me (and meant to). And all of us–ring, jeans, self–came out living, breathing, wishing only for this life.

Rubber Band Writing

© 2010 David Parker

From morning to mid-afternoon, my classes and I brainstormed all of the things you can do with a rubber-band. Inspired by a comment posted here, I decided to try this little exercise with 9th graders, and it was absolutely magical. When they walked in the door, I had a rubber-band waiting for them on each of the desks. They had to divide their paper into three columns and, in the first column, list all of the things they could think to do with a rubber-band. Then we shared (and I wrote our collective list on the board). Then they had to write more things to do with a rubber-band (that we didn’t already have on our list) in the second column. Then we shared and I wrote again. Then they had to do the same thing in the third column. EXHAUSTING! We spent an hour in each class with this activity. And every time, the kids whined about how there was nothing more they could possibly say about rubber-bands. But each column got longer than the one before it. And by the end, I was having to cut them off because we were out of room and out of time.

My favorites:

Take it to Wal-Mart.
Ask it how your butt looks in these pants.
Get mad at it for not talking back.
Lasso a rhinoceros with it.
Put it in your game day pants for good luck.
Insult it.
Measure it.
Forget it.
Tell your mother she can’t have it.

We talked about how our writing should be third-column writing. We figured out that it takes the first and second columns to get to the third, that you can write about anything if you want to (or have to), that you never feel like you have anything to say at the very beginning, that it’s sometimes easier to write if you have someone you can talk to about it.

My neck is sore, my arm feels bruised, and my back is all messed up, but, damn! It was one of those I’m-a-Teacher days, where you know you’ve just blown their minds (and yours). And the kids were buzzing about it in the halls. And, from now on, when they hand in shitty-first-drafts, I can say they need to work it into the third column and they’ll know what I mean and how to do it. But what made the day was that they valued each others as writers and thinkers. It’s not often you see 15-year-olds, or people in general, valuing each other’s ideas.

Us, the Most Fleeting of All

© 2010 David Parker

I like to measure time with my milk’s expiration dates. I start to get excited about things in my life when I buy a carton of milk that expires after the date of the thing I’m looking forward to. Buying organic milk means that I get excited about things nearly a month before they’re going to happen. So, today, I went to buy some milk and noticed that the expiration date is September 5 (two days after my 28th birthday). It’s finally here: my magical year!

I’ve been looking forward to 28 for a long time. I hated my early twenties because I felt like no one took me seriously. Now, I’m kind of thankful that they didn’t. My mid-twenties were full of change, change, change, and more change. From 24-26, I kept saying that next year would be predictable, constant, undramatic, maybe even boring. And I’m thankful that didn’t happen either.

But 27 has been a gritty, grace-less year for me. There were no short-cuts. I was spared no criticism, I had to ask for help, I discovered that I really have very little control over anything beyond myself, I became disenchanted. Despite its grit, 27 did bring me the best summer of my life, which I deserved and enjoyed. And 27 brought me to today, which, if you don’t count the poor decision to eat a taco from the school cafeteria, was a pretty good day.

What follows is the poem that opens The Time Traveler’s Wife. I just love it. That’s all.

Push It

© 2010 David Parker

I have this habit of taking a very simple task and turning it into a difficult one. Grocery shopping is one such task that ought to be easy: make a list, get what you need, pay, leave. The break down for me occurs when I have to make a decision about whether to grab a basket or a buggy. Whenever I get a basket, it’s always too big for me to carry because I get more than I need (like, oooh! I forgot I need a case of bottled water!). Whenever I get a buggy (as I did today), I wind up not getting as much and I tend to choose the buggy on days when the grocery store is its fullest. I never really noticed this habit of mine until David and I went to the store today and I grabbed a buggy (fool!).

We stopped in at the new Publix (the biggest thing that’s happened in this town this year). Their carts are really niiiiiiiiiiice (say it in your head with a long Southern drawl)–they glide rather than roll, they have a map of where stuff is in the store on the handle bar, and they don’t stick out too far. Anyways, we were maybe ten feet into the store (David pushing the cart), and he made some quip about how terribly domestic he felt. This occurred at the exact moment that the samples-woman yelled, “Sausage! It’s not just for breakfast anymore!” I’ve never paid much attention to it, but, because I had become so aware of David’s discomforts pushing the cart, I began to notice that there weren’t any men in the store pushing carts (with the exception of one elderly man who pushed for his also-elderly lady). Then, of course, we ended up with only three bags of groceries which could have been much more easily procured with two baskets.

I think the story of what-men-do and what-women-do has gotten rather tired, but it still strikes me as interesting when I see those narratives, predictable as they are, played out in front of me. This happens quite frequently as I reside in Alabama. It is even more interesting when these narratives are played out by me. These narratives are so much a piece of the fabric of our everyday lives that most of them go unnoticed by me (who is someone who notices a lot–especially when it comes to narratives and culture and self). Whenever one pops out at me in broad daylight, it’s startling. This sexed grocery-shopping experience startled me a bit in the moment, but was generally laughable.

Until I came home and learned something about the grocery cart’s story. Apparently, when the grocery cart was first invented, no one wanted to use them. Fashionable girls didn’t want to push them because, well, they were unfashionable. Men didn’t want to push them because it made them feel weak (and probably because, in the 1930’s, how many men were grocery shopping?). So Goldman (the guy who invented them) hired models of all ages and sexes to push them around the store pretending to shop. Once people began to use them, of course, they became indispensable and stores were redesigned to accommodate them, and, eventually, people would become so used to them that the idea that a grocery store could exist without the shopping cart would be absolutely unimaginable. The only thing more unimaginable than the nonexistence of grocery carts is perhaps the fact that people had to be taught how to use them. Because now we learn to grocery shop the way we learn how to be boys and girls, the way we learn to walk, the way we learn to speak: by watching everyone we know around us engaging in those behaviors. We especially watch models (like our parents and the cool kids in school).

Every year, I draw a picture of a goldfish on the board and I tell the class: The one thing that defines the fish is the thing that the fish is most unaware of. The answer is water. We don’t see the narratives, the beliefs, the cultural values that our lives are stitched by and for and with. And because we don’t see them, we don’t question them. The only thing that draws a fish’s attention to the water is the absence of it. Throw a fish out of water and it’s all Put me back in that other stuff! We’re the same way. We’re all swimming around in cultural narratives–we’re learning from and teaching countless cultural narratives as we make our way through the world. What’s crazy is that everybody always thinks they’re so above it all–so above sexism and racism and every kind of ism–especially people from very progressive places (like, not-the-South). And every time I catch my paradigm shifting (as in, Woah–a world without shopping carts has existed) it’s mind-blowing really. Because we’re all subject to one paradigm or another (or, for those of you who are trying to escape the Western preference for binaries, another). Even you.